Book Review: Saints, Sufferers, and Sinners
In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, the Apostle Paul provides categories for various maladies affecting Christians in the church. He speaks of the “idle,” the “disheartened,” and the “weak.” Additionally, Paul provides a specific ministry posture toward each group. The idle are to be “warned,” the disheartened are to be “encouraged,” and the weak are to be “helped.” Different groups require different responses—tailored to the particular struggle.
And, while Paul speaks of pastors in the previous verses (1 Thess. 5:12-13), he addresses his words here to “brothers and sisters,” i.e. the entire congregation. It is the work of the body to minister to the body, applying timely counsel in specific ways.
Michael Emlet’s new book, Saints, Sufferers and Sinners, adopts this apostolic paradigm and equips the church to walk alongside brothers and sisters in all of life’s difficulties. He asks, “What is true of yourself and every Christian you meet, according to Scripture?” (6). Emlet’s answer:
First, you can be sure that they struggle with identity at some level—which means they are implicity or explicitly asking, Who am I? … Second, you can be sure that they struggle with evil. This struggle with evil expresses itself in two ways. They experience evil from without (suffering)… They also experience evil from within (sin)… You and I, and every Christian we meet, wrestle with … identity and evil (6-7).
After a few introductory chapters, each section of the book deals with one of these identities: saints (chapters 4-10), sufferers (chapters 11-18), and sinners (chapters 20-27). Within each of those sections, the author provides chapters containing:
- Exposition of how Scripture speaks of Christians as saints, sufferers, and sinners
- Biblical examples of how God loves us in each of these various conditions
- Ministry priorities flowing out of each of these conditions
- Practical, everyday examples for counseling
- Barriers for each condition
- Insight as to how to apply these truths to unbelievers
SAINTS NEED CONFIRMATION
Emlet begins his book with our fundamental identify in Christ—that of a “saint,” one called by God and set apart to him. “Saints” are not special classes of Christians. Saints are Christians, and Christian are saints. But saints also struggle with their identity as saints, because oftentimes evil within and without (i.e. our struggle with sin and suffering) obscures our experience of sainthood.
Therefore, saints need regular “confirmation of their identity as children of God” (8). Taking an example from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, Emlet helps us see how the apostle encouraged saints and how we might imitate his example in our own counseling, including drawing attention to the Spirit’s work in the saint (44) and using God’s Word to encourage the saint (45).
My wife and I recently had the opportunity to put this truth into practice with a member of our own congregation. In the course of my own pastoral ministry, I encounter many saints who need such confirmation. On this particular occasion, my wife took the opportunity to begin memorizing the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism with this particular sister-saint, as means of fighting together to believe the blessed benediction the gospel pronounces over us:
What is your only comfort in life and death?
That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Sister-saints aren’t the only ones who need this reminder. Pastors do, too. Which is why these words are now framed in my own house, waiting to be hung in a prominent place where I can have them preached to me regularly.
SUFFERERS NEED COMFORT
Sufferers need comfort amid affliction. From the beginning to the end of Scripture, God’s comfort extends to his people in the midst of suffering. It extended supremely in the sending of his Son, who came to relieve our suffering—both temporal and eternal (68). And even when his relief of our temporary suffering isn’t what we prayed for, we can trust he is wisely at work in and through our suffering to wean us off the world, renew our souls in his image, and prepare for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Citing Jesus’ letter to the small, suffering church of Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11, Emlet reminds us that Jesus knows and sympathizes with us in our difficulties: “God approaches his people individually, mindful of the specific tears they shed” (75). Practical counsel includes listening well, asking good questions, praying (including the vital role of lament), and providing hope.
SINNERS NEED CORRECTION
We are not only saints who need confirmation and sufferers who need comfort; we are also sinners who need correction.
After discussing the ongoing presence of sin in the life of suffering saints (and all believers), Emlet looks at several episodes in the Gospel accounts where Jesus confronts and corrects sinners in their sin: the Samaritan woman (128), the rich young ruler (129), and the Pharisees (130). Ministry priorities when correcting sin are discussed, including the importance of a humble and merciful disposition and an expectation of repentance.
All Christians—at one time or another—find themselves and those around them to be disheartened and in need of encouragement, idle and in need of warning, or weak and in need of help. And since this “counseling ministry” belongs to the entire church, we need resources that help us live out this calling. This book is one of the those important resources.